Though Donald Trump has tried his best to ruin Juneteenth weekend for all of us who celebrate with his Stephen Miller-inspired racist routine, Orange Trumpie can’t stop no show. We are still BBQing and though younger folks may be listening to hip-hop and other genres of music, some of us older folks are hearkening back to the hits of the late ‘50s, through the ‘60s and into the ‘70s during the heyday of rhythm and blues and what later became Black rock ‘n’ roll.
Since we are in the middle of #AfricanAmericanMusicAppreciationMonth (phew—that’s a mouthful—I prefer #BlackMusicMonth myself) and I’m not having a BBQ this year, I decided to break out some old Soul Train videos and dance around the house, singing at the top of my voice, with only my dogs to wonder what is wrong with mommy. Though many of my favorite groups were made up of male singers, or had a woman with all-male backup—I have to admit that I’m a major fan of what were called “girl groups” back in the day, and Martha and the Vandellas were always on my most danceable list so that’s who I’m listening to.
While I’m also watching the Black Lives Matter protests, I’m remembering a clarion call from another generation, issued on Black radio stations across the nation for our young folks to come out and “dance in the streets.” Like so much in our society, not only the music business was segregated, which was the subject of my story last Sunday, so was radio. The heart and soul of our communities were Black radio stations and the jocks who spun the tunes and created a listening community.
I can remember saving up my skimpy allowance to scrape together enough money to head to the record store to buy my favorite 45 rpms, which I ‘d heard on the radio, spun by a Black DJ like Doug “Jocko” Henderson, or Georgie Woods—“the man with the goods.” Thinking back, I didn’t realize then how much Black radio shaped my thinking and my musical tastes. Radio DJs made the music happen, however they weren’t just about music; they were a connection to a larger Black community and all of the events and politics that affected us. Google Arts and Culture has an amazing online exhibit which I hope you will explore, “The Golden Age of Black Radio,” from The Archives of African American Music and Culture (AAAMC).
The four-part exhibition traces the birth of Black-oriented radio programs in Chicago through the transition to all-Black programming by stations around the country. Along the way, users will learn about the role of radio during the Civil Rights Movement, pioneering African American women in radio, personality deejays who rapped and rhymed, and the role of deejays in "breaking the hits” and promoting Black music and artists. Some of the most significant items in the online exhibition are:
- Video clips from an in-depth interview with legendary deejay, Jack "The Rapper” Gibson, recorded at Indiana University in 1981.
- Audio clips from interviews with nearly two dozen Black radio personality deejays and producers, recorded in the early 1990s.
- Historic photographs documenting Black radio stations and deejays in cities including Houston, Atlanta, Louisville, Cincinnati, Detroit, Philadelphia and New York, as well as the important relationship between Black radio personalities and African American communities.
In 1996, The Peabody Award was given to “Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was”:
Hosted by Lou Rawls, this 13-part documentary on radio’s role in the evolution of America’s black communities is a forceful reminder of the many contributions made by African-Americans to the history of broadcasting. Through interviews with radio veterans and the presentation of rare recordings of historical programming, listeners hear the powerful, captivating stories of individuals who experienced this important and often neglected area of American cultural and media history. Executive producers Wes Horner and Jacquie Gales Webb, along with producers Sonja Williams and Lex Gillespie, and production manager John Tyler, painstakingly gathered, recorded and re-recorded the oral histories and archival audio material used in this groundbreaking series. As a result, generations to come will appreciate the contributions made by Hal Jackson, Jack Gibson, Tom Joyner, Al Benson, Jack L. Cooper, “Doctor Daddy-O” (Vernon Winslow), and countless others to America’s radio listeners, regardless of color.
In case you didn’t listen to black radio during the ‘50s and ‘60s, or weren’t born at the time, each station’s DJs had a distinctive sound. Radio Facts has a great list of some of those voices who shaped the sound. They profile Martha Jean “the Queen” Steinberg, out of Memphis, Tennessee, and Detroit; Herb Kent “The Cool Gent, from Chicago; Dr. Daddio Jim Walker in Denver; Jack “the Rapper” Gibson out of Atlanta, Louisville, Miami, Cincinnati, and Cleveland; Nat Williams in Memphis; Zilla Mays in Atlanta, and Paul “Fat Daddy” Johnson from Baltimore.
I can only speak personally about the voices I heard while I was growing up. I listened to Douglas “Jocko” Henderson on WADO in New York. By the time I started listening to Jocko his show was late at night; I’d sneak my transistor radio into the bed, under the covers to stay up and listen, hoping my mom wouldn’t catch me. The next day, all the talk in the schoolyard would be about which tunes Jocko was spinning, and you were not “hip” if you hadn’t tuned in.
"Hello, Daddy-O and Mommy-O, This is Jocko" was all the rage in Philadelphia and later in New York City. His thing was rhyming words like, "eee-tiddlee-yock, this is the Jock,"or "oo-papa-doo, how do you do." While not the first to do this, it worked. Word has it that his fan club numbered 50,000 people at one time. His entry to his stage productions was legendary. He would enter the stage from a rocket suspended on wires. There was sound effects and smoke. Truly a sight to see.
Born on March 8, 1918 in Baltimore, Douglas Wendell Henderson, Sr. (Jocko) started in broadcasting in 1950 at AM daytimer, WBAL in the city of his birth. Chuck Richards at that station got Jocko interested. Baltimore DJ Maurice "Hot Rod" Hulbert also thought that Henderson should go into broadcasting. Doug loved radio and gave up his father's plans of him being a teacher. About a half-year later, Jocko moved to Philadelphia, a city where he would put down roots and start and raise a family. He started in the Quaker City at WHAT Radio, owned by Billy and Dolly Banks. It was at WHAT he would take the name that would stay with him for the rest of his life, "Jocko." Shortly later, he moved to WDAS…
About seven years later, he started doing morning drive on WLIB in New York City while still continuing the afternoon gig on 'DAS. Later, he kept the Philly job but switched NYC stations and time periods going to WOV, later called WADO for late evenings and eventually to WWRL. These shows were all live and it got to be a bit much for Jocko. He set up a studio in his basement where he taped the New York programs while adding Boston, St. Louis, Detroit and Miami.
I spent part of most of my summers in Philly, staying with my aunt and uncle and two cousins who were older than I was. They had dance parties in the basement, and Philly was the place to learn all the newest dance crazes. They listened to Georgie Woods. Though American Bandstand was airing on the television, every Black person in Philly was aware that it was “white,” though the performers were often Black, which is documented in The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock 'n' Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia, by Matthew F. Delmont.
American Bandstand, one of the most popular television shows ever, broadcast from Philadelphia in the late fifties, a time when that city had become a battleground for civil rights. Counter to host Dick Clark's claims that he integrated American Bandstand, this book reveals how the first national television program directed at teens discriminated against black youth during its early years and how black teens and civil rights advocates protested this discrimination. Matthew F. Delmont brings together major themes in American history--civil rights, rock and roll, television, and the emergence of a youth culture--as he tells how white families around American Bandstand's studio mobilized to maintain all-white neighborhoods and how local school officials reinforced segregation long after Brown vs. Board of Education.
Delmont frames white American Bandstand with the historical racist resistance to rock ‘n’ roll:
Much of this anti-rock and roll sentiment was fueled by overt racism and fears of miscegenation. Asa Carter, leader of the white supremacist North Alabama Citizens Council, garnered attention from national news media for his campaign to ban rock and roll, which he described as an NAACP plot to “mongrelize America.” Members of Carter’s North Alabama Citizens Council jumped on stage and attacked Nat King Cole at a concert in Birmingham in 1956 and also picketed a concert featuring the Platters, LaVern Baker, Bo Diddley, and Bill Haley with signs reading, “NAACP says integration, rock & roll, rock & roll,” “Jungle Music promotes integration,” and “Jungle music aids delinquency.” While Carter and his white citizens’ council received the most attention, segregationists across the South picketed rock and roll concerts, and city officials in Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Virginia passed regulations prohibiting interracial concerts and dances. In the West, a white supremacist group in Inglewood, California, published fliers with pictures of young black men and white women dancing, with captions reading “Boy meets girl … ‘be-bop style,’ and “Total Mongrelization.”
Chapter 5 in the book, features Georgie Woods, who he describes as “a leading rock and roll deejay who also advanced civil rights in Philadelphia. Woods’s civil rights activism developed out of his experience working with black teenagers as a deejay and concert promoter as well as his concern about the lack of black television personalities and black-owned broadcast stations in the city.”
DJ style and performance in New York shifted with the rise of Frankie Crocker, who got his start in the New York market at black station WWRL, and then at WLIB, which would become WBLS. He mixed music and had both a Black and white audience. Listeners could recite along with him the show’s intro:
“This is the show that’s bound to put more dips in your hips. More cut in your strut and more glide in your stride. … If you don’t dig it, you know you’ve got a hole in your soul … and you don’t eat chicken on Sunday.”
Crocker pushed the envelope on radio as a “shock jock,” but to his fans, he was an icon. “I grew up in Gravesend, Brooklyn, an area not known for racial tolerance, but you heard WBLS on every shop you went into. They loved WBLS, and Frankie Crocker was the king,” New York radio personality Ray Rossi told the Los Angeles Times.
Crocker’s listeners were as diverse as the music he played, but he represented more than music to the black community. Without many blacks in media positions, early deejays for black radio stations became the reporters, activists, and leaders of the community. Public airwaves were used as a channel for the civil rights movement. Crocker became the community’s link to many issues of the time.
(FYI—that blurred profile on Frankie’s album cover is me.) I got to know Frankie when he moved to New York City from Buffalo, and he was sharing a house in my neighborhood in Queens with an electric bass player friend of mine, and one of the Black engineers at WWRL radio. He was tall, skinny, bow-legged, and country looking, with high-water pants and a weird looking process-hairdo, but he soon got hip to city style and morphed into a dapper dandy whose nickname became “Hollywood,” and “The Love Man” and who called himself “tall, tan, young and fly.”
Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit, by historian Suzanne Smith places the popular Black music explosion into a political context, relating it directly to the civil rights movement.
Detroit in the 1960s was a city with a pulse: people were marching in step with Martin Luther King, Jr., dancing in the street with Martha and the Vandellas, and facing off with city police. Through it all, Motown provided the beat. This book tells the story of Motown--as both musical style and entrepreneurial phenomenon--and of its intrinsic relationship to the politics and culture of Motor Town, USA.
As Suzanne Smith traces the evolution of Motown from a small record company firmly rooted in Detroit's black community to an international music industry giant, she gives us a clear look at cultural politics at the grassroots level. Here we see Motown's music not as the mere soundtrack for its historical moment but as an active agent in the politics of the time. In this story, Motown Records had a distinct role to play in the city's black community as that community articulated and promoted its own social, cultural, and political agendas. Smith shows how these local agendas, which reflected the unique concerns of African Americans living in the urban North, both responded to and reconfigured the national civil rights campaign.
Against a background of events on the national scene--featuring Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, Nat King Cole, and Malcolm X--Dancing in the Street presents a vivid picture of the civil rights movement in Detroit, with Motown at its heart.
Her introduction sets the scene:
On a humid July afternoon in 1967, Martha and the Vandellas stepped onto the stage of Detroit's prestigious Fox Theater as the much anticipated grand finale of the "Swinging Time Revue." The revue, based on a local television show of the same name, was a regional version of Dick Clark's American Bandstand. Robin Seymour, a top disc jockey in the Detroit area, hosted the television show, which was broadcast from CKLW studios in Windsor, Canada. His live stage show featured performances by many local favorites in Detroit's rhythm and blues circuit. Acts including the Parliaments, who sang their hit "I Wanna Testify"; the Dramatics, who were promoting their single "All Because of You"; and the comedy act the Li'l Soul Brothers guaranteed a spirited show. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were, of course, the main attraction with their repertoire of Motown hits such as "Nowhere to Run," "Jimmy Mack," and—appropriately for the sweltering summer day—"Heatwave." Their biggest number, however, was "Dancing in the Street."1
Martha Reeves jumped into the song with her usual vigor, but she became distracted when a stage manager began to wave his hands and signal to her from the wings. Reeves finished the number and quickly went off stage to find out what was causing the commotion. The stage manager grabbed Reeves and told her that rioting had broken out on the streets of Detroit. A police raid on an illegal after-hours drinking spot, also known as a "blind pig," had ignited a burst of violence, looting, and arson that was spreading dangerously throughout the city. Young people out on the streets—as one observer noted at the time—appeared to be "dancing amidst the flames." Reeves returned to center stage and explained the situation, as calmly as possible, to her loyal fans. She advised all of them to travel to safety. Heeding her own advice, Reeves, the Vandellas, and their backup band packed up their equipment and left Detroit that night
She discusses the book and the historical context in a C-Span forum held on February 23, 2000. Smith does not fail to cover the development of organizations in Detroit like The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), and The League of Revolutionary Black Workers; often overlooked when discussing black radical movements.
James Adams, at California State University, Northridge wrote in his review:
In part because the black community vociferously claimed ownership of Motown’s sound, Motown groups were unable to transcend racial barriers, despite crossover success. The Supremes, one of Motown’s most successful groups with an interracial audience and one of the most successful musical acts nationwide, were consigned permanently to the rock n’ roll charts because their black skin trumped their variety of musical genres. When Ed Sullivan warmly welcomed them to his show – one of the first widely televised performances by a black group – he received complaints from show sponsor Ford that his relations with black performers were too friendly.
Whites were not alone in racializing Motown’s content; an increasingly militant black community interpreted Motown music as their call to arms. The deaths of Malcolm X and Nat King Cole in 1965 inaugurated an era of racial violence in which lighthearted Motown songs like “Shotgun,” which opens with a gunshot, took on ominous undertones. Articles such as “Rhythm and Blues Music as a Weapon,” which implored its readers to rise up violently against repression to the strains of black music, showed that for some black activists, popular music was intimately connected to the struggles the black community faced.
Motown and its artists’ presentation of Detroit as a theatre of tolerance ultimately could not obscure the reality of racial tension. In chapter five of Dancing in the Street, Smith chronicles the lead up to and aftermath of the event that Detroit blacks considered the “July Rebellion” and the media labeled the “Detroit Riots of 1967.” The violence was not altogether unexpected. Smith points to two events whose discordant ramifications belied notions of racial harmony in Detroit. The first was the failure of the Supremes to help solicit donations for a charity called the Torch Program. Smith attributes this failure to an overestimation of the Supremes’ rapport with a white audience, and in turn an overestimation of Motown’s ability to break down racial barriers. Events at the Second Annual Black Arts Convention also foreshadowed impending violence, as a tone of dissatisfaction and vengeance pervaded the remarks of SNCC leader H. Rap Brown. Less than a month later, looting, destruction, and rioting riddled Detroit’s black community. Throughout the violence and in its aftermath, Motown consciously removed itself from the surrounding turmoil.
To this day, when I hear Martha and the Vandellas “calling out around the world,” it evokes a time period when Black music and Black artists were beginning to break through to audiences outside of our segregated worlds in urban centers. Yet it was still “ours.”
Follow it up with “Heatwave.”
It’s funny that when I look at the video clips now, I have zero memory of their performances in front of all white teenagers. It wasn’t until several years later that we would see them on Soul Train.
Filmmaker and author Nelson George talked about the advent of Soul Train with NPR, in “How 'Soul Train' Shaped A Generation.”
I mean, I think the thing about - one of the many things about "Soul Train" is that it solidified national black culture. When I say that, I mean to say there had never been a regular scheduled vehicle ever for black music, black style, black entertainment in TV, it had never been done. When it comes on 1971, we're still in - we're in black power era. We're in an era where we have black mayors finally getting to be black mayors in major cities. We still have the black power - the riots of the '60s are still very, very vivid in the minds of everyone.
So what "Soul Train" did was take black joy - the excitement, the vitality, the spirit of soul music, of black music, of funk, of the beginnings of disco - and put it here in a format for everyone could enjoy in their living room. It took the idea of blackness and took it away from the news as strife or as conflict and made it accessible not just to black people but also to white corporations because you began seeing slowly advertising on "Soul Train." I mean, the thing about "Soul Train" was that it wasn't just the dancers and the music was black, but you began seeing black commercials.
When Don Cornelius died in 2012, at the age of 75, of an apparent suicide, there were numerous obituaries and tributes to what he had created with Soul Train.
The VH1 documentary, Soul Train, the Hippest Trip in America, narrated by Terrence Howard, aired February 5, 2010.
Few television series were as innovative and influential to pop culture as “Soul Train.” Set first in Chicago, “Soul Train” launched on WCIU-TV with local radio and television personality, Don Cornelius on August 17, 1970. After moving the dance show to Los Angeles, “Soul Train” skyrocketed nationally and firmly secured its place in television by becoming the longest running, first-run syndicated series in history. To commemorate the show’s 40th anniversary, VH1 Rock Docs and Soul Train present “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip In America,” a monumental 90-minute documentary celebrating the show’s impact on pop culture, music, dance and fashion. The film also features a rare interview with Don Cornelius in which he reveals exclusive details regarding the launch and early days of the legendary series.
From 1970—2006, “Soul Train” offered a window into African American music and culture, and its charismatic host, Don Cornelius, was the man responsible for a new era in African American expression. A trained journalist, Don created a media empire that provided an outlet for record labels and advertisers to reach a new generation of music fans. He was and still is one of the first African Americans to own his own show. As the epitome of cool, many of his expressions entered the popular American lexicon: “A groove that will make you move real smooth,” and “Wishing you Love, Peace, and Soul!”
The documentary includes memorable performances and moments from the show, as well as behind-the-scene stories from the people who lived the “Soul Train” movement, including the cast, crew, and dancers. In addition, popular musicians (Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, Smokey Robinson, Snoop Dogg, Aretha Franklin), Sly Stone’s first exclusive documentary interview in years, comics (Cedric “The Entertainer,” Nick Cannon), music industry executives (L.A. Reid, Clive Davis, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff) and actors of yesterday and today will comment on growing up with the show and will share their stories of how “Soul Train” affected their own lives.
I was fascinated to find a documentary produced by French television on Soul Train.
Show Me Your Soul: The Soul Train Years is a 2013 documentary produced for French television by filmmaker Pascal Forneri (who also directed the critically-acclaimed 2010 documentary Gainsbourg & his Girls). It uses wonderful rare footage, archival photographs, and brand new interviews to take the very first in-depth look at the history of Soul Train. Forneri not only highlights the amazing soul and R&B artists who performed on the program over its 35 year, 1,100 episode run, but also the real stars of the show: the in-studio dancers who would set the standard for future generations of contemporary urban dance.
Though touted as such, Soul Train producer Don Cornelius was not the first Black television DJ though Soul Train was the first Black popular music and dance show with national distribution.
We turn again to author and historian Matthew Delmont for some virtually unknown history in “Dancing Around the "Glaring Light of Television": Black Teen Dance Shows in the South:”
In this essay, Matthew Delmont examines four programs that brought music and dance to southern and border state television audiences in the 1950s and 1960s. Arguing that television provided creative outlets for some black teens during segregation, Delmont focuses on three black teen shows, The Mitch Thomas Show from Wilmington, Delaware (1955–1958), Teenage Frolics (1958–1983), hosted by Raleigh, North Carolina, deejay J. D. Lewis, and Washington, DC's Teenarama Dance Party (1963–1970) hosted by Bob King. Delmont also explores Washington, DC's whites-only program, The Milt Grant Show (1956–1961), to highlight the pronounced color lines that informed the experience of teenage dancers, as well as the home and studio audiences that flocked to these hit shows.
And even less well known, is the fact that Jocko Henderson had a television dance show on the air in New York; “his TV ‘Rocket Ship Show’ ran for about a year beginning in 1958 on New York's channel 13.” There are no tapes of the show that can be found anywhere, however I remember watching it. It didn’t last on-air very long, and I remember the rumors we heard when it disappeared—Black and white and Puerto Rican kids were dancing together on the show, though it was billed as only Black teens. Integrated dancing was a no-no.
The music business shifted to the production of videos, and MTV became the music video powerhouse in 1981. The recent Black Lives Matter protests have also reminded folks of the ugly history of racism and racial segregation on that platform as well.
“Systemic racism’s scary monster: David Bowie, MTV and uncomfortable truths:”:
Bowie had been a prominent face of the early “I want my MTV” promotional campaign and during the exchange, it becomes easy to forget who is interviewing whom: Bowie asks VJ Mark Goodman why the station didn’t play more videos by black artists. Defensively, Goodman tries to explain programming."We have to try and do not just what we think New York and Los Angeles will appreciate, but also Poughkeepsie or the Midwest, pick some town in the Midwest that will be scared to death by Prince (who we're playing) or a string of black faces and black music."
"That's very interesting; isn't that interesting?" Bowie responds. Goodman continues: "We have to play the music that an entire country is going to like." Falling back into the then-official reason MTV used for not playing black artists (it's a "rock and roll" station), Goodman wonders what a group like the Isley Brothers or Spinners would mean to a 17-year-old. Bowie seizes on that notion and ask, “I can tell you what the Isley Bros or Marvin Gaye mean to a black 17-year-old — and surely he’s part of America as well?” It’s a jarring question and Goodman agrees. Bowie calls Goodman’s viewpoint “rampant” in American media and asks, “Should it not be the challenge to try and make the media far more integrated, especially, if anything, in musical terms?” Goodman’s example that that is happening: He notes that MTV was now playing more white groups — that have a black sound!
The look on Bowie’s face priceless...
Even so, the nearly 40-year-old clip helps explain systemic racism. Goodman would never consider himself racist (and no reason to believe he is). Nonetheless, he admits that decisions were made to intentionally exclude videos by black artists — due to the perceived existence of racist beliefs somewhere. They could be as close as Poughkeepsie or as far as “some town in the Midwest” with residents who are scared of “black faces.”As we would say today, this is saying the quiet part out loud. An institution (corporation), acting in its financial self-interest, uses the existence of racism as its rationale.
Times have changed, though racism is still with us. What we see across the nation are scenes like this:
We are still dancing. We are still marching. Just as Black Lives Matter—Black music does too.